The Complicated Legacy of James E. Brown (c. 1802–1853), Liberian Colonial Apothecary

Editor’s Note: From the Collections is a new feature at Points that highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from AIHP publications and collections. In honor of Black History Month, Points Managing Editor Greg Bond revisits his two-part 2018 Pharmacy in History article about Liberian Colonial Apothecary James E. Brown. Read the full articles (Part 1 and Part 2) at JSTOR.

James Brown Ad
Colonial Apothecary James Brown’s 1834 advertisement in the Liberia Herald as reprinted in The African Repository, September 1834.

In the May 4, 1834, edition of the Liberia Herald, James E. Brown, the newly arrived Colonial Apothecary, placed an advertisement announcing his new business:

J. Brown, Druggist and Apothecary, late of Washington City, respectfully informs the citizens of Liberia, that he has taken the house formerly occupied by W.L. Weaver, Esq. in Broad Street, where he is now opening an extensive assortment of Drugs and Medicines, imported in brig Argus, from the United States, which he offers for sale on reasonable terms.” [1]

Over the previous two years, Brown had completed a pharmacy apprenticeship under the auspices of the American Colonization Society (ACS), making him one of the earliest known formally trained African American pharmacists or health professionals.

Brown had many friends in the United States who eagerly awaited updates after his departure. Finally, in August 1834, the National Daily Intelligencer, a leading Washington, DC, newspaper reported Brown’s arrival in Africa:

Many of your city readers will remember James Brown, a colored man, formerly resident here, and universally esteemed as one of the most intelligent and industrious men of color amongst us. He left this city for Liberia in November last… It will, doubtless, gratify his friends, and the friends of the colonization cause to hear of his well-doing. We have to-day seen a letter from him, in which he expressed his great satisfaction with the country and his prospects.” [2]

For the next two decades, Brown tended to the pharmaceutical and medical needs of Liberian colonists, proselytized for his new homeland, and held a series of powerful political positions.

Brown’s remarkable career—and complicated legacy—however have been little remembered. He was one of the first African Americans to receive formal health sciences training in the United States, but he was a vocal life-long supporter of the extremely controversial colonization movement. He strongly advocated for African American freedom, justice, and self-determination, but he failed to extend the same principles to the native Africans he encountered in Liberia. This post provides a brief introduction to the life and times of James E. Brown, Colonial Apothecary.

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The Other, Other Opioid Crisis: Tramadol in West Africa

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. 

For the past twenty years, a steady rise in opioid addiction and overdose rates across the U.S. has led to a “public health emergency,” declared by Donald Trump in October of 2017.[1] In 2017 alone, over 70,000 Americans died as a result of drug overdose, and 47,600, or 68%, of those fatal overdoses involved illicit and prescription opioids.[2] This means that opioids, whether in the form of illegal heroin or prescription pills such as OxyContin, killed more people in 2017 than car accidents (40,100) and gun violence (39,773). According to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 37,113 of the 47,600 opioid-related deaths that year, or 78%, were of “White, non-Hispanic” people.[3] Particularly hard hit by the epidemic were the Rust Belt of the Ohio River Valley and mostly-white suburbs of Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, and Massachusetts.

While the label “public health emergency” is apt given these statistics, the current media obsession with the “white prescription opioid cum heroin user”—epitomized in Chris Christies oft-repeated anecdote about his college buddy who was a “great looking guy, well-educated, great career, plenty of money, beautiful, loving wife, beautiful children, great house, and had everything” but then tragically succumbed to prescription opioid addiction after a back injury—is both unhealthy and unethical.[4] As Solomon Jones, a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently argued, perceptions of drug addiction in America have become so “gentrified,” that what once “was primarily a black and brown problem” of morals “has been rebranded by whiter and richer” Americans as a public health crisis affecting good, white citizens deemed victims.[5]

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